Eating off the land

Stalking wild asparagus, mushrooms and other plants

Stalking wild asparagus, mushrooms and other plants

May 27, 2003|by Chris Copley

When Nellie Strite was growing up near Clear Spring, the woodlands near her farm were more than a place for a young girl to play.

The woods also served as a food pantry.

"I was born on a farm and raised on a farm and lived on a farm all my life," says Strite, now 88 and still living on the farm she and her late husband, Adrian, bought in 1948.

The Strites harvested lamb's-quarters, mustard and dock for greens; catnip, mint and sassafras roots for tea; berries and nuts for baked goods. Farmers and other people who lived close to the land found a bounty of edible plants in woods, fields and fencerows.


It may seem a quaint historic practice to harvest wild food in today's fast food culture. Few people today wander woods and fields searching for food. Why bother, when burgers, burritos and beverages are available in an instant?

But when rural families relied on their own gardens and farm fields for food, wild foods provided flavor and nutrition for a little extra effort.

Wild food harvesting is not extinct, says Don Schwarz, Washington County Extension director. Many traditional wild foods remain popular.

"A surprising number of folks will still harvest greens in the spring," he says. "A tremendous number of folks harvest berries - elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, lowbush wild blueberries in the highlands in Indian Springs."

And there's more, Schwarz says. Wild peppermint makes a tasty tea. Many types of berries ripen from June through August. And then there's wild mushrooms.

"Mushrooms harvested around here are primarily the morels," he says. "They're usually here the third weekend in April, but they ran late this year. They're pretty much wrapped up now."

Schwarz's secretary, Roberta Yetter, does not look for morels. But for years, she has prepared morels harvested by her husband, Gene, a well-known and successful morel gatherer.

"Around here we measure them by the gallon," she says. "Some years are better than others. Trees have to be out and have moisture and have warmth."

Yetter fries morels in shortening to make them crispy, then serves them immediately or freezes them for later.

Dandelions are another common wild food harvested by area residents. Yetter says the leaves are picked, typically when the plant is young and the leaves are mild-flavored. They are served hot with egg-and-bacon salad dressing.

Phil Pannill, forester with the Forest Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says dandelion leaves are a good wild green.

"Leaves at this time of year are edible and tasty," he says. "Later on in the summer they get older, tougher, more bitter. Even after flowering, they're still edible. They're boiled such as spinach and kale."

Other popular wild foods in our area are wild asparagus and wild garlic, Pannill says.

"Asparagus is often found in old fields and woodland edges and around old homesites and that sort of thing," he says. "It's really an escaped domesticated plant. They tend to be skinnier and stringier because of the soil."

Mid- to late April is a good time to look for wild asparagus, Pannill says. They look just like domesticated asparagus, but thinner, maybe pencil-sized.

"When you find them, mark the location and cut them," he says. "If you keep cutting them off for weeks or a month, that will encourage more edible sprouts to come up."

When asparagus matures, it is beautifully delicate and lacy, nothing like the sturdy edible stalk. It turns a buttery yellow in autumn - a good time to mark the wild plant for springtime harvest.

"April is also a good time to find wild garlic," he says. "Most of the onion grass that we see in spring is actually wild garlic. Pull up the bulb and use as you would domesticated garlic. They're pretty strong. Don't eat it by itself. Add it to another dish."

Ranger Russell Boback serves parks in the South Mountain Recreation Area. He says rampions - a type of wild onion nicknamed ramps - are popular in the Tri-State area.

"Ramps are very strong. People will stink for weeks to months after eating them," he says. "Also, day lilies you can eat. They were a popular Indian food. They are actually a tuber. They grow bright red flowers in clusters. You see them growing along a road. Boil the bulbs and eat like a potato."

Although Strite harvested wild food as a child and also as a young wife and mother, dandelion was one wild food she and her family skipped.

"We did not like dandelion," she says. "We used to gather land cress - it's similar to spinach. It grew in fallow farm fields. We also picked wild dock - the narrow leaf kind. One of the so-called weeds we ate is lamb's-quarters. That's out now. That was good. I've got some outside my porch now."

Many wild foods appear in woods in early spring. For families living close to the land, these foods supplied fresh food - salad greens and boiled shoots - shortly after the ground thawed. The first sweet wild foods mature in early June.

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